a blog by knut skjærven



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Screen Print. Click image to Find New Platform.

This blog will move to another platform. Unfortunately that will mean it will continue on a new address. Please click the image to go to On Street Photography, where this site in the future well be integrated.

Sorry for the inconvenience.  Have a good day :-).

Knut Skjærven

November 21, 2014

Connotations: Introduction.

Shoe Seduction. © Knut Skjærven.

IMPORTANT: I am preparing a new site named Street Photographer’s Toolbox. The site is aimed at active street photographers.

The new site is not ready for publishing yet, but some of the posts are.  This is one of the new posts. You will not be able to open all of the links in this post at present. Stay tuned. 

Roland Barthes was a French academic famous also for his writing on photography. He did not have the patience to take pictures himself, but he wrote quite extensively about them. Together with Susan Sontag and John Berger he is one of the top three in a rather exclusive club.

In 1961 he wrote an article which in French was titled Le message photographique. In English: The Photographic Message. Among other things it holds a chapter that Barthes called Connotation Procedures. It is these procedures that shall concern us in this toolbox section.

Barthes operates with six connotation procedures. To get a feel of what connotations are all about we will deal with all six. They are 1) Trick Effects; 2) Pose; 3) Objects; 4) Photogenia; 5) Aestheticism; and 6) Syntax.

To understand the meaning of connotation, you need to understand the meaning of  denotations, as well. The two always comes together. Both words derive from latin. Denote means to mark accurately, observe, indicate. Connote means to mark/observe/indicate along with. It is that little idea of along with that is important here.

If denotations are first layer content, you could call connotations second layer content.

Related to street photography denotations are the more objective elements of a content that is there for everyone to see and agree on. Connotations could be described as the psychological impressions that comes along. Often more subjective than what is denoted.

If you look at the photograph above the denotations would be the 4 shoes on the right hand side, their shadows on the wall, the wall itself, the floor, the woman in the background and another set of objects. You could do a thorough description of the photograph to get all the details that makes the first layer content of the image.

On the other hand, you could say that this image is not primarily about shoes at all it is about elegance, it is about exclusivity and the human isolation in a modern world. That would be the connotations of the image. Second layer contents are more subjective.

There are more layers than denotations and connotations. Such third layer content could be political, symbolical or even other types of contents.

If you ask if Barthes connotations procedures are all there is to it then the answer is: no it is not. There are much more to be considered when speaking about connotations, but Barthes’ procedures makes a good start. For instance there are connotations related to colors, typography, tonal range, grain structure, etcetera.

Good luck with this section.


Relates posts in this section:  Introduction; Trick effects; Pose; Objects; Photogenia; Aestheticism; and Syntax.

Street Photography Training Sessions: See Street University.

Throw Your Second Best Camera At Them

Facebook Screenshot, July 11, 2011. All right reserved.

Yes, I was surprised. I still am surprised.

Some weeks ago I ran a poll on Facebook group On Every Street. The question was:   Do you think that there is connection with the degree of formal or non formal education and the ability to take good pictures? There were three possible answers to choose from: 1) Yes, definitely; 2) No, not at all and 3) I have no idea.

When you run a poll like this you always have some kind of anticipation of the answers that will come. My anticipation did not come through. That is why I am surpised. I my head there certainly is a connection between formal or non formal education, and what you are able to do as a photographer. I simply went dead wrong here. Or did I?

Today, July 13, 2011 the poll results are: 1) Yes, definitely 3 votes, 2) No, not at all 29 votes, and 3) I have no idea 2 votes. Question 2 leads by a huge, huge margin.

There are many ways to explain this result and why there is such a huge difference between my anticipation and the poll result. One explanation is simply, that I have not been precise enough in my question and the options given for answering. A second explanation is that people have not read the question properly before they made their mark.

A third explanation is, that there simply is a severe divergence here. And now I must learn.

The point is, that I am not willing to learn from this. I do not agree, that there is no positive connection between the level of formal/non formal education and the ability to take good pictures. Show me one picture of high quality, that has been taken by a photographer with a low level of formal education and/or  non formal education. Show me two pictures, show me three pictures. To be on the safe side: show me five pictures. I want to rule out pure accident.

Or even better: Point me to a single excellent photographer that have no formal education and/or no non formal education. I don’t think such a person exists. Please point me to him or her. And I will be willing to pull back these sentences and change my opinion. Slightly.

I am of this opinion: Formal and/or non formal education is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition for the ability to produce good pictures (or for that matter excellent pictures). If you don’t have either of it, is not very likely that you will produce pictures of these kinds. You will never make it as a photographer without either of them. The reason I can say this, is that I frankly don’t believe that such a person exist. That is the good news.

All of us have degrees of formal and non formal education. That is our competences. Up to a certain point of education this will, in my humble opinion, be a benefit in trying to take good pictures.

That said, it is interesting to speculate about this: If formal education/non formal education have no value on quality, then where does quality come from? One road to explaining this is to say that quality comes from inspiration, from genius. It is inherent in the individual photographer and education or non education have nothing to do with it. Give Mr. Wildman a camera and he will instantly start taking good photographs. Not likely is it?

Such an explanation would have been feasible some 30 years ago, but not today. Some very lucky people may have a natural potential for good photography, may have been born with a talent or capacity for it, I certainly do not argue agains that. Brilliant people starts there. However, without recognition of talent, without nursing and feeding it, talent goes nowhere.

The good thing is that there is light at the end of the tunnel. In this case the end of the tunnel is very close to its entrance, so you don’t need to walk that far to find it. Here is my recipe: Get out of your chair, find the nearest mirror, and start looking at yourself. If you see glimpses of talent don’t continue resting on your laurels. Go get to some formal, or non formal education, and move from potential to actual talent. If someone tells you that it cannot be done, throw your second best camera at them, because it is simply not so. It is not true.

Good photography is hard, hard work.

Good luck with it. Love to see your pictures.

Moments Sticks

The more I occupy myself with these areas, phenomenology and photography, the more they seem to interconnect.

I should have recognized this a long time ago, but I am afraid it only occurred to me recently. Simple things sometimes mature slowly. It goes like this: The notion moment is essential to both phenomenology and photography.

All of us, interested in photography, have heard of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moments as described in his famous book from 1952. I am not going to repeat that story here since it is already on this blog.

Considerable fewer of us know that a moment also is a central theme in Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology.

It goes like this: Phenomenology deals, among many other things, with parts and wholes. Parts comes in two types: Pieces and moments.

If I have a framed picture, and that picture is a photograph, the framed picture could consist of a) a piece of glass, b) a wooden painted frame, c) white passepartout, d) a back plate to support and stabilize it all, and e) possible some nails, tape or glue to hold it all together.

These parts are all pieces. They are independent parts.

Independent parts are parts that can be dismantled. They have, as one of their characteristics,  the ability to live their own life after being dismantled from the picture. Pieces don’t stick.

There is, however, also another type of parts involved. These parts are moments. Moments are dependent parts. They do not live their own life after being dismantled. In fact, they cannot be dismantled at all. Moments sticks.

Have a look at the picture above. Moments are e.g. the light and shadow in the black and white print, the identification of some of the combinations of light and shadows as human beings, stairs, shoes, legs, stone, etcetera. Try take those parts apart and discover that such a thing is not possible.

Here is a very important type of moments: All those parts that are not seen in the photograph. You see only parts of two women, yet you know that the rest is there. You see only parts of a staircase, yet you know the rest is there too. These moment sticks.

He is my point: If you combine the photographic moments with the phenomenological moments, there opens up a wholly new road of understanding photography. Simple as that.

What are the implications of this? Let me come back to that. They are huge.

I will leave is there, since this blog is also a notebook. I just made a note.

Have a good day.

By the way, you may want to chick the image above. Just to see where it takes you.

The Interview: Question Three.

Send In The Clowns. © Knut Skjærven.


Let’s move on if that is ok with you?

I have read your blog, or should I say blogs. I particularly refer to certain passages and, what should I say, indications that you seem to come with more than one time. I find them, for instance, in barebones communication, your first blog that deals with photography. Among many other things. You started that in November 2007.

You say, or at least indicate, that there is an affinity between phenomenology and photography. I understand that it was thoughts like that led to the making of the present blog.

I find it fascinating that you also seem to indicate there is a type of affinity even between phenomenology and black and white photography. You even take it so far as to you say that this affinity can be shown in the some of the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

So my question is simple is if you would be willing to elaborate on this? I can’t see that you have done that anywhere else?


Yes, it is true that I have indicated that. It is also true that I have until now, not done much about explaining it. The reason is simple that it is complicated. I don’t think I am finished elaborating on it either. But ok, I will give it a try. It is good that you push this question. However, please look at this as a preliminary answer. I may come back and change and add to it another time.

You know that phenomenology says that man mostly operated in the natural attitude. The natural attitude has a practical and a scientific dimension.

The practical dimension has to do with our life-world where all our daily, practical experiences and doings take place. This interview, for instance, happens in the natural attitude. You and I talk together in a life-words setting.

Phenomenology, however, also deals with a phenomenological attitude. Please note that I say too. It is not a question of leaving the natural attitude and move into another sphere. Nothing strange about it at all.

The phenomenological attitude carries different names, but here I will simple call it the phenomenological attitude.

In the phenomenological attitude you arrest whatever you are occupied with in the natural attitude. Phenomenology calls this to bracket the world. The world is still there, but you set it out of play so you can have a closer look at it. That is a phenomenological approach and a phenomenological investigation. Much like a photographer arrests a life word incident by pressing the shutter on her/his camera.

Now why would anyone want to make an arrest as this?  Obviously to get a better understanding of it. You detain the incident for a moment to see what makes it up.

What makes it up reveals it self as, what I will call, structures of consciousness. These structures of consciousness are the heart of the matter for phenomenology. Unfolding them and understanding them are what phenomenology is all about.

Let me take an example: At this very moment I am concentrated on this interview. I think and I speak and this activity is directed towards you as an interviewer. The activity is at the core of my attention. When I operate within the natural attitude, in the life-world, that is all I need to know. It is all that you need to know about this situation, as well. We agree on this and we understand each other

When I arrest this simple situation another and much more varied and complex picture turns up. Not that it is more difficult once you get a grip of it.  This is the move from one attitude to another. Like having a different pair of glasses on. I get to know, for instance, that this, as any other moment, is carried by my consciousness. That consciousness is like a web with threads spread all over. It links to a future, it links to a past, it links to an outer world, it links to an inner world, it links to your world, as well.  In the natural attitude all this is taken for granted or not questioned. In the phenomenological attitude you investigate these structures of consciousness.

Apply this to photography and you get an amazing way of seeing. Take pictures in the natural attitude you will get what is there. Take pictures in the phenomenological attitude and you will even get what is not there.

You could say that photography in the natural attitude is all about taking pictures of physical things. Photography in the phenomenological attitude is all about  taking pictures of relations.

Look at the photograph that comes with this post, as well as the photograph that came with the former post. First and foremost they are pictures of relations. That is what I try do to with my photography.

Are you with me?


(Silence) Let’s have a short break, and continue this session a bit later. Would that be ok?

The Interview: Question Two.

Blind Date. © Knut Skjærven

Q: I just want to use a minute to quote you on what you said to your new Facebook Group: On Every Street. That might be a bit unusual in an interview like this, but the interview will be extensive, so I need to fill in all readers from the start. Would that be ok with you? Can we perhaps do that now?

I have read the text and found it rather illumination on what you understand with street shooting. It’s rather good, in fact.

A: Sure, why not. I’ll just get a cup of coffee from the kitchen while you do that. Want a refill?

Q: Sure, thanks. This will not take long. Let me just set the stage: A group member asked a question of what images that should be loaded to the group. Here is your answer. We will have to dig into that at a later stage. At this moment, just for the record.

Start of Quote:

Many thanks. Mats, for raising this issue. It is a good theme and it had to be brought up sooner or later.

When defining an area one has to recognize that this can be done in many ways. You could differentiate between a descriptive and a normative definition.

What are the differences?

A descriptive definition is a definition that tries to honor the way a word, or a concept, is used in daily speech. A normative definition, however, will try to set a standard for a concept when used in a specific context, e.g. in a Facebook Group like On Every Street.

The rules we have in this group try to honor a bit of both: The definition, as articulated in the rules, is obviously normative. Photographs posted should: a) have people in them, b) be shot in a public areas, and c) basically be un-staged.

On the other hand, it is also stressed that street shooting is to be understood mainly as an approach. It should also be said, however, that this is an approach to be executed within the norms, that are worded in a, b, and c above.

This is the way it (normatively) is, and that is the type of shots that should go into this group site.

If your start discussing this, which is very good, that some do, you challenge a normative definition with a descriptive definition. That can lead to complications of understanding.

You could say, for instance, that this is not the way Burri, Bresson or Fischer would have defined the area. That is obviously true, but of no value here, since the definition is set normatively, not historically, or from other criteria.

That said, the normative definition used on this site is formulated to honor the larger part of what might be expected to go into a descriptive definition. It is not at all uncommon to describe street photography as just: “a) have to contain people, b) should be shot in a public area, and c) should basically be un-staged”.

I have, as you can see, tried to honor both, and by running polls regularly we can adjust that along the way. If that is needed and wanted.

Why have definitions at all? Why not just open the gates and take all in (what we de facto do at the moment, anyway)? There are very important reasons why we should not continue doing this. Let me point to 4 of them:

1) I really don’t think that having a normative definition, as an overall guideline, degrades an area at all. In fact, I believe quite the opposite. The more precise an area is defined the better the chances are for getting outstanding work.

2) A normatively defined group will have a tendency to go deep (same type of shooting), while a descriptively defined group will have a tendency to go wide (lots for different approaches and areas).

3) A normative defined group will gain respect and recognition. A descriptive set group will not. You will never attract high prolific photographers to this group unless you keep strict definitions and high standard. And what was the group ambitions again? “The ambition for the group On Every Street is simply to make the best group for street photography on Facebook. Or for that matter: On the Internet.”

4) The best people will, over time louse interest in a loosely defined group since they all tend to specialize, and therefore will only stay with specialized forums.

This comment is getting long, so I will end soon. One last thing though: Do there have to be people in street shooting?

Descriptively “no”, but normatively “yes” .

This group, as it is defined at present, asks that there are people in the pictures. You may decide to honor this, and you may decide to neglect it. Neglect it enough times, and you should find another group. If you prefer to shoot e.g. street architecture you should find a group that honors that.

Why this stress on people?

This is personal: I cannot find any area within photography that is so rewarding, so extremely difficult, so funny, so interactive, so scary, so beautiful, so entertaining, as the photography of people interacting.

Add to that an ambition of fixing a few decisive moments (in your lifetime), and you have a tall order that will take the rest of your life to accomplish.

Eventually you will succeed :-). I am absolutely sure about that.

Listen to one of my favorite quotes:


 The first thing a photographer learned was that photography dealt with the actual; he had not only to accept this fact, but to treasure it: unless he did, photography would defeat him. He learned that the world itself is an artist of incomparable inventiveness, and to recognize its best works and moments, to anticipate them, to clarify them and make them permanent, requires intelligence both acute and supply.

John Szarkowski: The Photographers Eye, The Museum of Modern Art, New York 2009.’

Have a good day :-).

End of Quote.

NB! If you want to be a member of On Every Street you need to have a Facebook account and become a member of the group.

Can Cropping Save An Image?

Synchronous Smoking.© Knut Skjærven.

I just want to direct you to a post written by Adam Marelli: Can Cropping Save An Image?

I asked a question on Facebook not long ago about which was generally better: a square crop or a rectangular crop?That question led to a discussion about The Golden Rectangle and its use in photography.

The discussion generated a lot of answers, but basically waters were divided. Some liked the mother, others preferred the daughter.

Adam Marelli asked me if he could do an analysis on the photos in question, and he has now publishes the first part of that analysis on his website. The last part of his analysis will be published Friday 6, 2011. Tomorrow.

For me this is a new way of looking at, and analyzing,  photographs. This stuff is groundbreaking even for many other photographers. The inspiration is, once again, French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. He followed strict, classical rules of composition in almost all of his shots. And he did that with great success, as we all know.

Enjoy Adam Marelli’s brilliant analysis. Have a good day.

Oh, the picture above is not the picture analyzed by Adam Marelli. Go see his post.